canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Wanting the Day: selected poems
by Brian Bartlett
Goose Lane Editions, 2003

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

This collection of Bartlett's poetry covers three decades and includes poems from five of his books. It reveals his increasing maturity in the use of language, its nuances, precision, and density. He does not waste words, but rather builds from one image to the next, creating a journey within each poem. In 'Weasel' the movement is with the boy from the house, through 'forbidden mountains of sawdust', through mist, to the moment when he encounters the weasel 'upright in a tractor print', and into manhood with that boyhood moment held forever within him.

Bartlett's images of nature are clear-cut and incisive:

Our first snow in seven months
XXXXXXXrises to the top of a mare's hooves,
XXXXXXXcovers harness marks on her neck.

Dirty white, she is piebald with snow.
XXXXXXXShe stands still until the wind drops
XXXXXXXand a red barn returns from the storm.

The mare is as clear as a Joy Laking watercolour, the details finely drawn but, because the mare is described only as 'piebald with snow' the reader is left to imagine her exact colour.

Birds are a persistent image throughout the poems, used with meticulous insight, 'They look at each other across/ the room, crouched, a couple of blackbirds'; 'the heron for reach and poise.'; 'grosbeaks dipped overhead'. It is only in the last collection, from The Afterlife of Trees, that repetitions occur as Bartlett uses a wide variety of species, rarely using the generic term.

He is a poet of the outdoors, relating descriptions and actions to nature, 'Women's faces/ the forests of their hair waving' or 'he felt numbers falling./ a dark blizzard of ashes.'

In other poems he connects nature to humanity with clarity and precision. The last stanza of 'In a house chastity was taught for a century'

Heavy with pollen, wind crosses the yard,
XXXXXXXclimbs the window and laughs
XXXXXXXat the grandmother slipping her arm
XXXXXXXaround the waking child.

The child is a bastard and the laughter of the pollen-bearing wind has an ironic note as it goes to fertilize plants over the world.

The people he writes about are vivid, interesting, and come alive under the searching imagery that Bartlett uses. They not people one encounters everyday: a podiatrist, a sonographer, a blind man skating, and 'A soldier on a bus to Beersheba':

The soldier's rifle glibly sticks
XXXXXXXinto the aisle. Exhausted
XXXXXXXhe starts nodding, nodding
XXXXXXXsideways towards the purple-shirted
XXXXXXXstranger. Slack-mouthed, he slumps
XXXXXXXviolently, almost dropping
XXXXXXXhis head hard onto the other's shoulder.

The soldier's exhaustion is plain, the downward drift of his head to the shoulder of the Arab beside him inevitable.

Bartlett reveals people with presicion, from an early poem in Cattail Week, 'Gas-station girl, she wears the standard skirt/ which rides up her legs as she stretches/ over a windshield, or bends to a tank' to The Sonographer in The Afterlife of Trees, who claims to be 'the coroner's sunny double, his lucky brother./.. I wonder if he'd bow to the consummate promise of a fetus forming -/ if he'd weep to be in my shoes.'

Occasionally Bartlett uses the third person singular when the hidden voice is first person, as in 'Sick for the New Millennium' or 'Every lion until now'. The protagonist is held back from the reader, involvement is not required. Bartlett maintains the distance astutely without losing control of the poem.

His language is always compact, pithy, and clever, challenging the reader to understand.

Joanna M. Weston: THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL for ages 7-11 print edition now available: ISBN 1-55352-073-4 






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